French comedic genius Jacques Tati left the world less than a dozen completed films. If Sylvain Chomets THE ILLUSIONIST did nothing but bring us one more Tati film rife with Tatis gift for gentle, perceptive humor, it would be enough of a recommendation. Using a script written by Tati, but unproduced at the time of his death, Chomet (THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE) has created a poignant, lyrical, and beautiful animated film suffused with a wistful, bittersweet resignation about the passing of time. The essence is pure Tati, the execution is a sublime evocation of everything that made his films a joy that is timeless. Yet, this is not a film aimed at kids that their parents can also enjoy. This is a film that takes the bold step of being an animated film aimed squarely at adults who understand that the passage of time has unforeseen consequences. Kids may or may not enjoy it. Thats not the point.
The time is 1959 and the eponymous protagonist, Tatischeff, is a small-time magician t the end of a less than stellar career. The bookings are fewer, the audiences smaller, the money dwindling. Case in point, the delay in his latest attempt to take the stage at a Paris music hall. He is forced to prep for his act over and over again, with the placement of rabbit in hat, umbrella under jacket, lit cigarettes in his palm, by the seemingly innumerable curtain calls of the previous act, Billy and the Britoons, a loud and wildly popular band replete with screaming teenage fans (female), sparkly jackets and swiveling hips. By the time the magician has taken the stage, the audience has emptied. By the time he has left stage, his engagement at the theater is ended.
A man of infinite dignity, wearing a suit of improbable fit and of an even more improbable color, he performs a well-worn repertoire of traditional tricks with grace, fluidity, and a rabbit of mercurial temperament, professionally ignoring the lackluster response he evokes. Wandering from booking to booking, wheeling all his worldly goods with him, he find himself finally at the edge of the world on an island off the coast of Scotland. There he performs for one last enthusiastic audience, and one last smitten fan, Alice, the young maid at the pub where he is performing. Alice, a sweet but credulous girl, believes that the aging magician is doing actual magic, really pulling coins from her ear and conjuring bars of soap out of thin air. She also confuses a flurry of newly plucked feathers with a snowstorm. When Alice tags along with him on his return voyage to the mainland, he is unwilling to shake her off, be it for the company, the adulation, or the fatherly affection he has begun to feel for her.
They end up in Edinburgh, he performing at a music hall, that is only lukewarm about featuring him, she keeping tidy the small room in the boarding house while being enthralled by the new and wondrous things to be found in a big city, from stylish clothes to the fellow denizens of the theatrical boarding house, to the handsome young man she spies from her window. Wanting all of them with an innocent avariciousness and blithely unaware of the change it will provoke in her. Tatischeff is less blithe, gallantly keeping the reality of their financial problems from her.
Without dialogue, and only the most sparing use of random words in French, English, and Scots Gaelic, Chomet and Tati have created an eloquent cinematic experience of pure emotional resonance. The animation is lush, taking the time to drink in the landscape, whether urban or rural. The characters are realized with a careful depth and complexity, even the rabbit, which proves to have a sentimental side beneath the snarling and gnashing of its teeth. Tatischeff has precise movements and professional sangfroid that makes his one smile of satisfaction after a warm reception all the more remarkable. Chomets realization delivers in animation the persona of Tati as the magician, a courtly man, careful of the naïve sensibilities of his charge, full of aplomb with his sleight-of-hand, but at a profound loss when dealing with the mechanicals wonders of the modern age, even something as simple as the adjustment of a car seat. Its as though motion-capture from the beyond has been used. Even a sequence showing the magician inebriated, something Tati never did on camera, rings exquisitely true.
The story does, too. The irony of the remote island celebrating the arrival of electricity with a performer whose time is cut short by the modernity, a moment echoed in the very moment when the first bulb is illuminated. The light changes from a cozy spectrum of warm tones to one that is brighter, harsher, and infinitely less appealing somehow. In all that light there is the psychic darkness of being left behind. A suicide attempt averted with an unexpected kindness, another performer unable to adapt being left at the wayside, literally.
There is no sugar-coating, there is instead an infinite compassion in the face of the inevitable. This is a tear-jerker as much as it is a comedy, and it is Tatis gift, in the lovingly respectful hands of Chomet, that each is integral to the other in telling the story. Forward looking, THE ILLUSIONIST reminds us that the future is a magical place where there is more than just room to acknowledge the past, there is also room to honor it.